The pivotal moment in Southside With You amounts to a center-left cinematic version of John Galt’s Speech.
Barack Obama (Parker Sawyers) strides to the pulpit of a rundown inner-city church and launches into a clunky but heartfelt riff on the nature of American society—that we can only make progress when we come together and work for the greater good. Though mercifully shorter than John Galt’s stem-winder near the end of Atlas Shrugged, Obama’s speech is also staged poorly: The camera lingers on our hero, static, shot slightly from below to give him a majestic visage. When we cut away, it’s often to Michelle (Tika Sumpter), who is seen smiling in the audience, overcome by the great man’s words, Dagny Taggart gazing at the man who would jumpstart the motor of the world.
“You definitely have a knack for making speeches,” she says, a cringe-inducing summation of Obama’s political talents.
Like Galt’s rambling ode to the Makers-Not-Takers Class, Obama’s vision of a world that works best when compromise is prized bears little relation to the world we’ve seen for the last few years.
The rest of the film is less annoyingly, but rarely more artfully, put together. It’s a lot of shot/reverse shot and slow walk-and-talks, with Barack and Michelle’s faces all-too-often draped in shadows. Oddly, the movie often works better when Michelle and Barack are not on screen together, as in the early going when the two of them discuss the evening’s events with their respective families.
There’s an interesting film to be made about Obama’s relation to his father, but director Richard Tanne doesn’t make much use of this fertile territory. He’s more interested in resurrecting the idea of hope and change, as embodied by the young couple in love, than he is in examining why the former has been lost and the latter has failed. As the New York Times’ Manohla Dargis—no indignant reactionary offended by this mediocre offering’s praise to the heavens, she—put it, “Mr. Obama hasn’t even left office, but the cinematic hagiography has begun.”
Such hagiography of our chief executives is not unheard of, but it’s also less common than you might think. The complicated portraits of presidents painted by Oliver Stone in Nixon (1995) and W. (2008)—sympathetic, to a point, but unsparing and occasionally unfair—are far more interesting than the offering to Obama’s cult of personality that Southside With You represents.
John Ford’s Young Mr. Lincoln (1939) and Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln (2012) are perhaps the two most impressive examples of pure homage to the presidency. Young Mr. Lincoln in particular is a deft piece of filmmaking—as the booklet that comes with the Criterion Collection’s edition of the film notes, the legendary Soviet director Sergei Eisenstein once wrote that if he could lay claim to any American film, it would have been this one—which culminates in as powerful a sequence as any in film history.
Honest Abe (Henry Fonda) has defended two brothers from a wrongful murder charge—first saving them from a lynch mob and then proving their innocence in court—and seen the grateful family off. A friend asks if he wants to come back to town. “No, I think I might go on a piece. Maybe to the top of that hill,” Lincoln replies, striding off into the sunset. As he crests the ridge and as the Battle Hymn of the Republic plays, the sky cracks and rain pours forth. He pushes on, into the rain, the lightning, the thunder. It’s a storm Lincoln will have to face alone, a storm similar to the one the nation faced when the film was produced in 1939.
It’s not a subtle image, particularly, but it does hold up through the decades, a simple and powerful picture of a man with the weight of a nation on his shoulders. In its own way, the closing moments of Southside With You are also affecting. Barack Obama sits in a chair, smoking a cigarette, a book on his lap. He smiles, thinking of himself and his date. The storm clouds gather again—mass murder in Syria; a destabilized Middle East; a resurgent China and Russia—but you wouldn’t know it from the placid look on the future chief executive’s face. He is detached, concerned with his own affairs, his own place in the world.
If that’s the impression Tanne was going for, well, to quote another president: Mission Accomplished.